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Archaeologists Discover the Remains of a Viking Neighborhood Near Istanbul, Turkey

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An international team of archaeologists has discovered a Viking neighborhood and trading base near Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) Turkey.  The site itself is in the ancient city of Bathonea near Lake Küçükçekmece, about 12 miles away from the fabled capital of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.  This find matches written sources (such as the 12th century Russian Primary Chronicle) which tells of Viking-Byzantine treaties that only allowed Norse traders inside Constantinople in small numbers and only during the daytime.  The site that archaeologists are now uncovering was strategically located a short sail from the mighty Byzantine capital and provided easy access to the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

Şengül Aydıngün leads the excavation team of 75 experts.  He commented to Istanbul’s Hurriyet Dailey News, “Vikings lived in Istanbul between the 8th and the 11th centuries in different periods. We have found their exact settlement area to be between the 9th and 11th centuries in the Bathonea excavations.”1

“We unearthed seven clues that indicated the Vikings once lived here,” added Polish Viking expert, Blazei Stanislawski. “We found a cross made of ambergris, which was only found in northern Europe at that time, where Vikings firstly originated. And a necklace on which a snake is drawn. In Vikings myth, the snake is Jörmangandr [the World-Coiling Serpent]...”1

Aydıngün and Stanislawski also commented that they had reason to believe Vikings who were mercenaries for the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas lived near the site they are now excavating.1 The archaeologists did not elaborate on why they drew these conclusions.  Michael VII Doukas was an unpopular emperor who often faced rebellions and lived in the shadow of Emperor Romanus IV, whom he betrayed at the battle of Manzikert in 1071.  Perhaps Doukas had his Viking mercenaries stay in Bathonea like their kin because he feared they might participate in a coup against him.  The Vikings of the Varangian Guard was famously loyal to the Emperor, but many thought Michael a usurper, and so the loyalty of the Vikings may have been transferred to other claimants to the throne. 


A Quick History of the Vikings in Constantinople

In the Middle Ages, Constantinople was the most fantastic city in Christendom and unlike anywhere else in Europe.  While the Roman Empire had fallen apart in the West, it had continued uninterrupted in the East until 1453.  Constantinople was the center of this Eastern Roman Empire (which historians tend to call the Byzantine Empire to differentiate the medieval from the ancient).  Constantinople was built to be the “center of the world,” strategically located at the crossroads of trade from all directions.  Norse sagas tell of Vikings dropping their jaws in astounded silence as they first beheld the impregnable walls, teeming riches, and vibrant markets that were unlike anything they had ever seen in Northern Europe.

Constantinople became a magnet for Vikings in their insatiable thirst for glory and wealth, their burning curiosity, and their keen eye for opportunity.  Scandinavian mercenaries are mentioned in Byzantine sources as early as the 6th century AD.  In the 9th century, Swedish Vikings that established a network along the riverways of what are now Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus attacked Byzantine territory.

Byzantine and Slavic sources call the Vikings “Varangians," which means "sworn companions.”  These Varangians and a confederation of 25 or so Slavic tribes formed a people that came to be called the Rus’ (pronounced “Roos”).

The Varangian Rus’ laid siege to Constantinople around 860.  This attack was thwarted by the city's stout walls, Byzantine cunning, and the Empire's super-weapon, "Greek Fire."  Later, in the 10th-century, Rus’ leaders like Oleg (Norse, Helgi) and Igor (Norse, Ivar – though not Ivar the Boneless like on TV) found that fighting the Byzantine Empire was like a wolf trying to eat an elephant.  Instead, they used their military strength to encourage the Byzantines to "buy them off" with lucrative trade agreements. 

Under these trade agreements, the Vikings were welcome to bring their furs, honey, wax, and European slaves to Byzantine markets to exchange for silks and the splendors of the East.  These treaties specified, though, the Byzantines didn’t want more than 50 Viking merchants in the city at any given time, and they had to be out by dark.  Igor’s treaty (circa 945) preserved in summary within The Russian Primary Chronicle (page 74-76) assigns the Viking merchants their quarter "by Saint Mamas’s church,” which may refer to Bathonea. 

Igor’s grandson, Vladimir, strengthened ties with the Byzantines even further by marrying Emperor Basil’s sister, Anna, and officially converting the Rus’ to Christianity in the late 10th century.  As a gift, the Rus’ ruler sent Basil 6000 Viking mercenaries to help his campaigns against the Bulgars.  These Vikings became the Varangian Guard, one of the most famous elite warrior groups in history. 

The Varangian Guard was a bodyguard in the sense that the emperor always had them with him when he went into battle, and numerous sources mention various emperors being followed around by tall men with giant axes.  But the Varangian Guard was also what we would think of as special forces.  They were used as shock troops, marching into battle shoulder to shoulder with the southern sun shining on their mail and glittering scales, filling the air with dread-inspiring battle cries.

The Varangian Guard was well-equipped with armor, shields, helmets, swords, spears, and various armaments.  The signature weapon of the Varangian Guard, and symbol of their identity and status, was the long-hafted, single-bitted "Dane ax."  This weapon required strength and skill to use, but was matchless in power, reach, and penetration.  Primary sources describe the Varangians using these fearsome axes to take out Norman cavalry and cut through Turkic battle wagon formations.  Modern cutting tests suggest that in trained hands, this ax could hew a man in half.  Archaeological findings show that these long-hafted (i.e., from the ground to the warrior's mid-sternum or so), large-bladed axes represent only a small percentage of axes from the Viking Age.  Such findings emphasize the high-status of the Varangian's ax and the exceptional abilities of the men who used it.  

As Basil’s 6000 Varangians needed replacements, new members volunteered from the Swedish Vikings and the Rus’. They sailed down the Volga and Dnieper Rivers on what some Norse sagas call “the road to Miklagard” (their name for Constantinople).  Over time, word of the splendors of Miklagard and the tremendous opportunities there spread all over the Viking world.  Soon, the Varangian Guard also featured many western Vikings from Norway, Denmark, and elsewhere.  These included many heroes and men from noble houses, including Harald Hardrada, later king of Norway.  

When William the Conqueror forced Norman rule on England after five years of brutal war (1066-1070), the Varangian Guard was inundated by dispossessed Anglo-Saxon and Danish warriors fleeing the collapse of the Viking Age and yearning for revenge.  The avaricious Normans (who were also Viking descendants, of course) were often at war with the Byzantines. The Varangians got their epic showdown with the Normans in 1081.

Even after the Viking Age, in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Orkney, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man, it became the family tradition for many noble Norse houses to send their sons to start their careers by serving in the Varangian Guard.  It seems that this was not only so that the young scion could gain wealth and experience, but because the Scandinavian elite considered the status of the far-off Byzantine emperors to be higher than their national kings.

The Varangian Guard gradually disappear from the written record, but there were almost certainly Viking descendants fighting for Constantinople when that long-lived Empire finally came to an end in 1453.  



These latest archaeologic finds from Turkey remind us just how far-traveled and far-reaching the Vikings were and the part they played in the history of so many nations.  It is exciting to realize that discoveries are being made all the time that confirm the sagas and stories of our common ancestors while casting new light on how they lived and how they could accomplish all they did.


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  1. Archaeologists unearth Viking neighborhood in Istanbul. Hurriyet Daily News. August 24, 2020.
  2. The Russian Primary Chronicle: The Laurentian Text. Translated by S. H. Cross & O. Sherbowitz-Wetzor. Medieval Academy of America. Cambridge, MA. 1953.
  3. Rodgers, D.G. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. KDP. USA. 2018.
  4. D’Amato, R. The Varangian Guard, 988-1453. Men-at-Arms. Osprey, Long Island. 2010.
  5. Norwich, J. J. Byzantium: The Apogee. New York. 1992
  6. Norwich, J. J. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. Knopf. New York. 1989.


Picture Credits

  1. After Being Stricken by Drought, Istanbul Yields Ancient Treasure
    By Jennifer Pinkowski
  1. After Being Stricken by Drought, Istanbul Yields Ancient Treasure
    By Jennifer Pinkowski
  1. Theodosian Walls of Constantinople by Crni Bombader!!
  2. Lake Küçükçekmece at Golden Hour.jpg by Pixabay.
  3. Graffiti presumably inscribed by Viking mercenaries on the second floor of the Hagia Sofia by NotHome.

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